The bassoon is the largest instrument in the woodwind family. Its closest cousin is the oboe, as they both have a double reed, but the bassoonist also has a crook or 'bocal' on which to place the reed before connecting it to the instrument. The bassoon's conical bore has thick walls that are usually made out of maple, and it is these, together with the reed, that give the instrument its distinctive sound - a humorous, bright and bouncy staccato, but also a dark and sonorous singing quality.
The forerunner to the bassoon was the dulcian. Although there are numerous similarities between the two, such as the double reed and metal crook, there are also some important differences. The main one is that the dulcian was usually carved from a single piece of wood, whereas the bassoon is made from four separate joints - the bell, long, tenor and butt joints - which enables the maker to achieve much greater accuracy when boring out the wood. The dulcian existed independently alongside the bassoon for some years, and is still played today by early-instrument specialists.
The bassoon's invention is frequently attributed to Martin Hotteterre, as it is he who supposedly created the four-part system in around 1650. By adding a couple of keys, the natural range was extended down to B flat, and fifty years later, the bassoon had gained another two keys (and still later three), thereby increasing its chromatic capabilities. It is this instrument that was used for the music of Bach and Vivaldi, the latter composing no fewer than thirty-seven bassoon concertos!
Technical and musical demands increased over the years, and the instrument continued to develop, with more and more keys being added to stabilise the tuning - there are up to twenty-eight keys on a modern instrument. There are, however, two different systems - the French and the German. The German system, which is the most well-known format, was developed mainly by Johann Heckel who fashioned the singing tone quality for which the bassoon is revered today, and it is his model that German system instruments rely on. Please note that this article deals only with 'Heckel' or German system instruments. The French system or 'Buffet' is substantially different to the Heckel, and is generally not used in England or Germany. French bassoon is played in niche ensembles and in many European orchestras, but opportunity for the student or amateur is very limited.
At the start of its life, the bassoon was used primarily to play bass lines. If a wind instrument, or sometimes a male singer were carrying the melody, a bassoon would join the basso continuo (cello and keyboard) to augment the sound. As the instrument's abilities developed, the bassoon was also employed to play solo lines. The bassoon's role in a modern orchestra does not differ so much from this basic model - it forms a bass for the wind section, just as the cellos do for the violins, but it is also frequently employed as a soloist, as in Dukas' 'Sorcerer's Apprentice' and Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' for instance. Its expressive dark sound is particularly popular with film music composers.